Blinken, Lavrov talk briefly at G-20 as US-Russia tensions soar

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (top C) walks past Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (lower) during the G20 foreign ministers' meeting in New Delhi on March 2, 2023. (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov talked briefly Thursday at a meeting of top diplomats from the Group of 20 nations in the highest-level in-person talks between the two countries since Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The short encounter came as relations between Washington and Moscow have plummeted over Russia’s war with Ukraine and tensions have soared amid a myriad of disagreements, complaints and recriminations on other matters ranging from arms control to embassy staffing and prisoners.

U.S. officials said Blinken and Lavrov chatted for roughly 10 minutes on the sidelines of the G-20 conference of foreign ministers in New Delhi. But there was no sign of any progress and the conference itself ended with the grouping unable to reach consensus on the Ukraine war.

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A senior U.S. official said Blinken used the discussion to make three points to Lavrov: that the U.S. would support Ukraine in the conflict for "as long as it takes" to bring the war to an end, that Russia should reverse its decision to suspend its participation in the New START nuclear treaty and that Moscow should release detained American Paul Whelan.

The official, who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversation, said Blinken had "disabused" Lavrov of any idea Russia might have that U.S. support for Ukraine is wavering.

The official declined to characterize Lavrov's response but said Blinken did not get the impression that there would be any change in Russia's behavior on any of the three points in the near term.

Blinken did not immediately address the encounter but had told the G-20 meeting earlier that Russia’s war with Ukraine could not go unchallenged, according to remarks released by the State Department.

"Unfortunately, this meeting has again been marred by Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified war against Ukraine, deliberate campaign of destruction against civilian targets, and its attack on the core principles of the U.N. Charter," he said.

"We must continue to call on Russia to end its war of aggression and withdraw from Ukraine for the sake of international peace and economic stability," Blinken said. He noted that 141 countries had voted to condemn Russia at the United Nations on the one-year anniversary of the invasion.

Yet, several members of the G-20, including host India, China and South Africa, chose to abstain in that vote and despite appeals from top Indian officials to look beyond their differences over Ukraine and forge consensus on other issues, the foreign ministers were unable to do so or agree on a final communique.

Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said there were "divergences" on the issue of the war in Ukraine "which we could not reconcile as various parties held differing views." "If we had a perfect meeting of minds on all issues, it would have been a collective statement," Jaishankar said.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had earlier appealed for all members of the fractured G-20 to reach consensus on issues of particular concern to poorer countries even if the broader East-West split over Ukraine could not overcome.

"We all have our positions and our perspectives on how these tensions should be resolved," Modi said. "We should not allow issues that we cannot resolve together to come in the way of those we can."

China and Russia objected to two paragraphs taken from the previous G-20 declaration in Bali last year, according to a summary of Thursday’s meeting released by India.

The paragraphs stated that the war in Ukraine was causing immense human suffering while exacerbating fragilities in the global economy, the need to uphold international law, and that "the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible."

Lavrov, who did not mention speaking with Blinken when he held a news conference after the G-20 session, told reporters that Moscow would continue to press its action in Ukraine. He shrugged off Western claims of Russia’s isolation, saying "we aren’t feeling isolated. It’s the West that has isolated itself, and it will eventually come to realize it."

He said Russia remains open to talks on ending the conflict in Ukraine, but he accused the West of effectively blocking such talks.

"They are calling on us to have talks, but I don’t remember any Western colleagues calling on Ukraine to have talks," he said. "They are encouraging Ukraine to continue the war."

Lavrov also mocked U.S. threats against China, which has presented a peace plan for Ukraine that has been applauded by Moscow but dismissed by Washington and its Western allies.

"Our Western colleagues have lost self-control, forgotten their manners and put diplomacy aside, switching exclusively to blackmail and threats." he said.

Russia had no immediate comment on the substance of the conversation, but Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said Blinken had asked to speak to Lavrov.

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It was their first contact since last summer, when Blinken talked to Lavrov by phone about a U.S. proposal for Russia to release Whelan and formerly detained WNBA star Brittney Griner. Griner was later released in a swap for imprisoned Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, but Whelan remains detained in Russia.

Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive, has been held for four years on espionage charges that his family and the United States government have said are baseless.

The last time Blinken and Lavrov met in person was in Geneva, Switzerland, in January 2022 on the eve of Russia's invasion. At that meeting, Blinken warned Lavrov about consequences Russia would face if it went ahead with its planned military operation but also sought to address some complaints that Russian President Vladimir Putin had made about the U.S. and NATO.

Those talks proved to be inconclusive as Russia moved ahead with its plans to invade and Blinken then canceled a scheduled follow-up meeting with Lavrov that was set for just two days before Moscow eventually invaded on Feb. 24, 2022.

The two men have attended several international conferences together since the war began, notably the last G-20 foreign ministers' meeting in Bali, Indonesia, last year, but they had not come face to face until Thursday.